Movie Review: King Richard

Will Smith delivers a stellar performance as Richard Williams, the larger-than-life father who created tennis superstars—Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton).

Despite the lack of physical resemblance, Smith captures the essence and dogged determination of the manic “interview-hogging dad” who drafted a plan for his daughters before they were even born. Unwilling to consider any deviations to that plan, he works tirelessly to train and promote the girls. Brochures and videotapes in hand, he approaches professional coaches who gently (and not so gently) turn him down.

Afternoons and evenings, he trains the girls on a rundown court in all kinds of weather. He endures regular beatings from gang members who consider the court their turf.

Richard’s persistence finally pays off when coach Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) reluctantly agrees to watch the girls practice. Impressed, Cohen selects Venus to receive free coaching. Venus quickly finds success in Juniors’ tournaments while Serena continues to practice with her mother.

Richard has long been known as the man behind the tennis magic. Still, Oracene Price (brilliantly played by Aunjanue Ellis) knows when to set aside the role of supportive spouse and intervene on her daughters’ behalf. Her fiery temper emerges at pivotal points in the storyline.

Actresses Sidney and Singleton learned to play tennis at a level convincing enough to be believable. They also exhibit the childlike excitement and confidence of the real-life Williams sisters.

Part biopic, part sports movie King Richard was named one of the best films of 2021 by the American Film Institute. In last Sunday’s Golden Globes, Will Smith received the Best Actor award (Drama). The film received three other nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Drama), Best Motion Picture (Drama), and Best Original Song.

A strong contender in this year’s award season, King Richard is a must-see film.

Movie Review: Spencer

Kristen Stewart delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as Diana, Princess of Wales, in a film that has been described as “a reimagining of a Royal Family Christmas at Sandringham, circa 1991.” (Toronto Star)

Or, more concisely, in the film’s opening caption: “A fable from a true tragedy.”

Neither description adequately prepared me for what followed.

From the start, it is clear Diana dreads this tense three-day holiday with her husband’s family. Driving by herself in an open convertible, she gets lost in the Norfolk countryside, not too far from where she grew up. At one point, she wanders into a café and asks the woman behind the counter, “Where am I?”

Once at the estate, her mood plummets even further.

Hearing the familiar words, “No one is above tradition,” from the stern-faced military officer (Timothy Spall) at the entrance sets the tone. She is expected to comply with all the rituals, including one dating back to 1847. On arrival, guests must participate in the “all in good fun” weigh-in. Upon departure, another weigh-in will hopefully confirm they have properly indulged during the holiday by gaining three pounds. An ordeal for most people and a nightmare for anyone struggling with weight issues.

While her sons, William and Harry, are happy to see her, almost everyone else belittles or ignores her. Diana’s one scene with Charles painfully demonstrates how far they have strayed since their fairy tale wedding ten years earlier. His comment, “You have to be able to make your body do the things you hate, for the good of the country,” does little to reassure Diana.

In her assigned bedroom, Diana finds a book on Anne Boleyn, another abandoned royal wife. Boleyn’s ghost (Amy Manson) shows up in several scenes, offering sympathy and warnings, at critical junctures during those seemingly endless three days.

Hints of Camilla Parker Bowles are everywhere.

Knowing that Camilla has received the same gift, Diana is sickened by the set of pearls she receives from Charles. A bizarre dinner scene involving a bowl of pea soup demonstrates the level of physical suffering Diana is enduring. While being photographed outside the church on Christmas Day, Diana catches glimpses of Camilla among the crowd.

Oscar-winning costume designer Jacqueline Durran adds bursts of much-needed color to the film’s grayish-brown backdrop. Durran includes many of Diana’s famous outfits and other looks associated with that period. My favorite, a yellow suit with a pirate hat, takes on special significance in a later scene.

The film ends on a bittersweet note, reminding me of Diana Spencer’s too-short life outside the gilded cage.

Movie Review: Stillwater

Matt Damon delivers a stellar performance as oil-rig roughneck Bill Baker in this riveting drama loosely based on the infamous Amanda Knox case. To recap, an American student abroad in Italy was convicted for the murder of her roommate.

In Stillwater, the setting is Marseille, France, and the accused is college-aged Allison (Abigail Breslin), Bill’s daughter. Allison has already served five years of her nine-year prison sentence for her roommate’s murder but now has new evidence that could lead to the reopening of the case. According to Allison’s former professor, a young Arab man (Akim) has boasted about getting away with murder.

Convinced of his daughter’s innocence, Bill takes matters into his own hands after the defense lawyer dismisses the new evidence as hearsay. An uphill battle from the start, Bill faces language barriers, cultural differences, and the intricacies of the French legal system. Often frustrated but undeterred, Bill seeks out detectives, talks to witnesses and chases down suspects, all in the hope of finding the elusive Akim (Idir Azougli).

Thankfully, he is not alone during this quest.

Local theatre actor Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her adorable nine-year-old daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) provide much-needed language assistance and emotional support to the God-fearing, gun-loving American who is clearly out of his comfort zone.

As the relationship deepens between Bill and Virginie, there are hints of a happily-for-now ending. Bill secures employment as a construction worker, spends quality time with Maya, and slowly reveals his vulnerabilies. Beneath the baseball cap, plaid shirts, and bushy goatee lies a tortured soul yearning for acceptance and redemption. Had the film focused on this dynamic or ended fifty minutes earlier, it could have been labeled a mid-life romantic drama.

Director Tom McCarthy had a different ending in mind.

The third act veers into dark, unexpected terrain. A chance encounter releases past demons, enabling Bill’s self-destructive streak to rear its ugly head. Poor decision-making and reckless actions follow, endangering the lives of Virginie and Maya. A startling revelation touches Bill at his very core, forcing him to re-examine what he holds most dear.

A must-see film that will linger in consciousness!

Movie Review: The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Jessica Chastain inhabits the character of Tammy Faye Bakker, providing us with an intimate look at the extraordinary rise, fall, and redemption of the televangelist.

The first act follows Tammy’s childhood fascination with religion to her courtship with Bible College student Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) to their meteoric rise in the PTL (Praise the Lord) network.

Naïve and impressionable, Tammy is dazzled by Jim’s outspoken and progressive views about Christianity. During a student preacher seminar, he proclaims: “God does not want us to be poor; he will gift the faithful with eternal wealth.”

After a quick marriage, they drop out of Bible College and become roving evangelists. A twist of fate brings them into contact with the Christian Broadcasting Network in Virginia. Established televangelist Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds) hires them to host a children’s show with bible stories and puppets.

Charismatic and entertaining, Jim and Tammy pioneer the feel-good variety shows that hypnotize (and often guilt) fans into pledging their hard-earned money. As their fame and wealth increase, the couple experiences turbulence in their relationship.

Beneath the pleasant demeanor of Jim Bakker lurks a voracious greed. He prefaces those desires with “God told me he wants…” Jim also wants to act on his passions, which include his attraction to men.

When Jim talks about his “God-connection,” Tammy retorts, “Well, He told me I have to speak up.”

Tammy undergoes a transformation from a baby-voiced puppeteer to a bored housewife to a Christian feminist who demands a seat at the table. My favorite scene…At a party, Tammy (holding her infant daughter) sits at a table populated by several Christian superstars, among them Jerry Falwell (well played by Vincent D’Onofrio). Ignoring the blatant disapproval of the older men, Tammy shares her beliefs about acceptance and homosexuality. Later in her career, she invites an AIDS patient to share his story on the air.

When Jim falls from grace in 1989, Tammy is shocked by the allegations of fraud and the subsequent conviction. A bit of a stretch to believe she was still that naïve.

While she was inherently good and had the best of intentions, Tammy Faye Bakker craved the spotlight and enjoyed all the trappings of wealth. Throughout the film, her mother (Cherry Jones) asks pointed questions that are dismissed or ignored. I believe that Tammy may have suspected fraudulent and inappropriate behavior, but she chose not to delve too deeply into those turbulent waters.

A thought-provoking film that provides new insights into a decades-old scandal.

Movie Review: Emma

Screenwriter Eleanor Catton has produced a streamlined version of Jane Austen’s classic novel, Emma. While significant chunks are missing, the final product is a delightful, easy-to-follow film with most of the dialogue left intact.

Anya Taylor-Joy delivers an excellent performance as Emma Woodhouse, a 21-year-old busybody who enjoys meddling in other people’s lives. After successfully arranging the marriage of her governess, Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan), to widower Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves), Emma decides to pair her friend Harriet Smith (Mia Goth) with the local vicar (Josh O’Connor).

A series of comical (and not-so-comical) misadventures follow, and Harriet ends up with a bruised heart.

Disappointed by the turn of events, long-time friend George Knightly (Johnny Flynn) chastises Emma, commenting: “Vanity on a weak mind produces every kind of mischief.”

Undaunted, Emma turns her attention toward new arrivals Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) and Frank Churchill (Callum Turner). Often thoughtless, sometimes even cruel, Emma continues to poke her nose in other people’s affairs. One particular barb sets in motion Emma’s unraveling. Ashamed and embarrassed, she tries to atone for her behavior. And, in the process, she falls in love.

Bill Nighy steals every scene in which he appears as Emma’s father.

Definitely light fare and a welcome distraction during these challenging times.

Movie Review: I Still Believe

Based on the memoir of Christian music star Jeremy Camp (K. J. Apa), I Still Believe chronicles the singer’s whirlwind romance with Melissa Henning (Britt Robertson).

Jeremy, a musically-gifted student from a financially-strapped Indiana family, meets his hero, Jean-Luc La Joie (Nathan Parsons), within hours of arriving at Calvary Chapel Bible College in Southern California. Flattered and somewhat amused by Jeremy’s enthusiasm, the successful Christian rocker takes him under his wing.

Thrilled to have Jean-Luc as a mentor, Jeremy quickly absorbs all his advice and begins writing “love songs to God—mostly to God.” Jeremy also becomes smitten by Melissa, a special friend of Jean-Luc’s. A romantic triangle involving Jean-Luc, Jeremy, and Melissa takes up much of the first act. When the truth emerges, there are hurt feelings and awkwardness but no passionate or violent episodes.

The characters reconcile when Melissa is diagnosed with Stage 3C ovarian cancer.

At age twenty, Jeremy takes a semester off. He stands by Melissa throughout chemo, surgeries, public and private praying sessions, remission, and a beautiful beach wedding. In the third act, the cancer return, and Jeremy experiences a spiritual crisis.

I was most impressed by Apa’s performance. He did his own singing and playing of Jeremy Camp’s real-life compositions. My favorite: the title track, his tribute to Melissa.

I would have liked more scenes with Jeremy’s parents (Gary Sinise and Shania Twain). While Gary Sinise delivers one emotional father-and-son scene toward the end of the film, Shania Twain remains in the background. A long-time fan, I would have loved to hear her sing one song with Jeremy.

An appearance by the real-life Jeremy Camp, his second wife, and three children brought an effective end to the roller-coaster of emotions.

An uplifting film!


Movie Review: The Way Back

Ben Affleck delivers an excellent performance as Jack Cunningham, a hard-drinking former basketball star who reluctantly accepts the position of head coach at his alma mater.

As the storyline unfolds, we learn that Jack walked away from a full sports scholarship and hasn’t picked up a basketball in almost 25 years. His life has settled into a predictable routine: days at a construction job followed by evenings at Harold’s Bar and more alcohol at home. He is so dependent that he even brings a can of beer into the shower.

As soon as Jack accepts the coaching position, he becomes involved in the lives of the players and succeeds in motivating the underdog squad of ten players. A winning streak follows with impressively choreographed basketball scenes.

Jack still drinks too much, and his short-fuse temper is easily triggered during tense moments. Despite reprimands from the team chaplain, Jack can’t control his constant use of profanities.

Viewed as a savior, Jack appears to be well on the road to redemption. Until life—in the form of resurrected past demons—rears its ugly head. What follows is backtracking, a major disappointment, and an accident.

A longtime fan of sports movies, I fully expected Jack to take the team to the final championship game. Instead, co-writer and director Gavin O’Connor chose a different trajectory for Jack Cunningham, one that is a better “fit” for the imperfect coach struggling to overcome past mistakes and insecurities.

A thought-provoking film!


Movie Review: Just Mercy

Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx deliver stellar performances in this thought-provoking film based on a real-life injustice in Alabama.

A Harvard law graduate, Bryan Stevenson (Jordan), declines several lucrative jobs and heads to Alabama. There, he agrees to help local advocate Eva Ansley (well played by Brie Larson) run the Equal Justice Initiative. Their mission: Defend anyone who has been wrongly condemned or not given proper representation.

After interviewing inmates at Holman Prison, Bryan hones in on Walter McMillian (Foxx), a timber cutter who has been convicted of murdering a white teenage girl. At first reticent, Walter eventually accepts Bryan’s help.

From the start, it is clear that Walter, aka “Johnny D,” has been victimized by the Alabama justice system. Friends and family members, who could provide alibis, were not allowed to testify. The entire case was based on the coerced testimony of a convicted felon (Tim Blake Nelson).

Bryan maintains a steely reserve and tenacity as he battles against the covert and overt racism of the small town. I marveled at his ability to rise above the many roadblocks he encounters in his quest for justice.

I was surprised by the behavior of the other inmates on death row. While they can’t see each other, they do indulge in friendly banter between the bars and walls of their confinement. I would have liked more details about Herb Richardson (Rob Morgan), a Vietnam veteran who planted a bomb on a woman’s porch while suffering from PTSD.

Highly recommended!


Movie Review: Richard Jewell

Described as a “wrong man thriller,” this film tells the story of the security guard (brilliantly played by Paul Walter Hauser) who was hailed a hero when he discovered a pipe bomb during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

That fame lasted only three days.

A tip from a former employer alerts the FBI to the possibility that Richard Jewell could have planted the bomb himself. An inappropriate leak to Atlanta Journal reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) sets in motion a downward spiral of events. What follows are 88 days of intense scrutiny from the FBI and vilification by the press and public.

I watched with horror as the FBI attempts to railroad an innocent man, albeit one who does fit the profile of the lone bomber. Single and still living with his mother (Kathy Bates), Jewell appears slow on the uptake and overly-zealous in his policing work. He takes his rent-a-cop job very seriously and often butts heads with co-workers and supervisors.

Desperate for help, Jewell reaches out to feisty libertarian lawyer Watson Bryant (well played by Sam Rockwell). Despite his inexperience in criminal law, Bryant guides his naïve and childlike client, urging him to fight back against the flawed American justice system.

Respectful of authority and loyal to a fault, Jewell appears differential and accommodating throughout most of the film. In the third act, he finally stands up for himself and forces the FBI to drop all charges.

Unfortunately, there are still people out there who believe Richard Jewell was guilty of placing that bomb that injured 100 people and killed two.

A thought-provoking film from director Clint Eastwood.

Note: Richard Jewell is available on DVD.


Movie Reviews: Harriet, Parasite, and 1917

Each year, I try to watch all the nominated films before award season. I fell short this year but made up for it last week when I watched three of the Oscar-nominated movies: Harriet, Parasite, and 1917. Inspired and impressed by this diverse trio of movies, I decided to write and share my reviews:

Actress, singer and songwriter Cynthia Erivo delivers a stellar performance, one that is truly worthy of the nominations garnered during the recent award season. Erivo embraces the multi-faceted role of the legendary Harriet Tubman, a woman who is considered one of America’s greatest heroes

Born a slave on a Maryland plantation and known by the name Araminta “Minty” Ross, she decides to flee to the North. Miraculously, she survives the journey (over 100 miles) and makes her way to Philadelphia. There, she is assisted by abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Junior) and boarding-room owner Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe).

After taking the “freedom” name of Harriet Tubman, she becomes part of the Underground Railroad, repeatedly risking her life to return to the South and ferry over 70 slaves to freedom.

I was most impressed by the scenes showcasing Harriet’s ability to hear nothing other than her own inner voice. In stressful situations, Harriet loses consciousness as she slips into spells, which she describes as “consulting with God.” Afterward, she emerges with an ironclad sense of the action and direction to be taken during rescue missions. These amazing feats earned her nickname “Moses.”

An extraordinary tale of an American freedom fighter!


Described as a “pitch-black modern fairy tale,” Parasite has won numerous awards, among them four Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Feature Film.

Interested in examining relationships between different classes under capitalism, director and screenwriter Bong Joon Ho created an upstairs-downstairs tale involving the wealthy Parks and the street-smart Kims.

A twenty-something drifter Kim Ki-woo jumps at the chance to teach English to the teenage daughter of Mr. Park, a celebrated tech entrepreneur. Renamed Kevin by his status-conscious employers, Ki-woo hatches a plan to bring the rest of his unemployed family into the Park’s spacious, multi-level house. Father Ki-taek is the new driver, mother Chung-sook is the new housekeeper, and sister Ki-jung is the art tutor/therapist.

Determined to maintain their anonymity and successfully “con” the Parks, the Kims forge documents, invent aliases, and rehearse their lines. Bordering on preposterous, these schemes provide much of the dark humor in the film.

Gainfully employed, the Kims dare to dream about a different kind of future, one worlds away from their stinkbug and mildew-infested basement apartment. Unfortunately, those hopes and aspirations are quickly shattered. Without giving too much away, I will only say that several unexpected (surprising, shocking, and even horrific) twists to the storyline alter the trajectories of all the characters.

In a recent interview, Bong Joon Ho discussed the significance of the title. While most people would attribute the word “parasite” to the poor Kim family that has infiltrated the rich household, the director has a different viewpoint. He suggests that the members of the rich Park family could also be considered parasites. Unable to drive, cook, wash dishes, or study independently, they are forced to leech off the poor.

A must-see film that will linger in consciousness.


Director Sam Mendes has incorporated anecdotes from his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, who fought in World War 1.

Two young British soldiers, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are given a seemingly impossible mission: Cross enemy territory and deliver a message that will stop the following day’s deadly attack on 1600 soldiers. General Erinmore (Colin Firth) has selected Blake because his brother is part of that battalion.

What follows is a journey into a wasteland of twisted barbed wire, corpses, and shell craters as Schofield and Blake make their way deep into the German trenches. While the former front line has been abandoned, there are still many dangers the two men must face.

It seems like only one camera has been used, closely following Blake and Schofield as they embark on this perilous journey. I could feel the tension and suspense as they sidestepped booby traps, encountered German soldiers, and ran through burning buildings.

While the story of two young men attempting to stop a doomed attack is a compelling one, it would have helped to include more historical context. Also, I would have liked more scenes with the senior officers and the Frenchwoman in the deserted building. Those cameos moved a bit too quickly.

A dramatic and powerful film!

Movie Trailers

Harriet | Parasite | 1917

Note: Harriet and Parasite are available on DVD.